• Hakahau, Ua Pou, Marquesas Islands French Polynesia, 2016


Q&A: Jimmy Nelson

The photographer on the power of indigenous cultures, the importance of empathy, and the trauma that led him to his art

Interview: Janet Tyler
Images: Jimmy Nelson

You have a new exhibition at Atlas Gallery. What works can we expect to see?
The exhibition is the beginning of Before They: Part II. There will be three parts to the whole Before They project; it’s a trilogy. The first part was the catalyst—beautiful pictures of beautiful people in beautiful places—but what it actually meant I wasn’t really sure. Part II is more of an in-depth investigation, with images from 35 indigenous cultures. Part II will also include me returning to places I went to in Part I, giving the pictures back and discussing them with the people I made the pictures of. So this idea of trying to complete the circle: I took something and I’m now going to give it back.

Your Before They project has taken you to some of the most remote places in the world. What inspired you to embark on this epic journey?
The journey began 49 years ago, to be honest. Between the ages of nought and seven, I lived as an ex-pat kid in the developing world. My father was a geologist. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria, Turkey, Venuzuela—the list is fairly unending. Then at the age of seven, I was sent to a traditional English Catholic boarding school, all-male. So, from a very early age I was being confronted by different cultures, different judgements, different appearances. Then I think what tipped the scale— and it didn’t help that I was abused in the boarding school by the priests, so that rocks you a bit, to use understated English—is that when I was 16, my hair fell out. I was given the wrong antibiotics and I woke up 12 hours later with no hair. So, I was physically uncomfortable and then I became aesthetically uncomfortable too. What I saw in the mirror wasn’t me, and it wasn’t what I wanted to look like. So, at 17, I ran away to Tibet. I spent a long period of time walking through Tibet. As a kid, I had all the Tintin books including Tintin in Tibet, and I remember him walking around with bald monks there, so I thought I would go and find empathy with some other bald boys! But the people I met, the people that were nice to me, the people that were kind to me, the people that protected me, I took pictures of. That’s what started this.

Your photographs are aesthetically stunning as well as anthropologically compelling. When we look at your photos, what do you want us to see?
I want you to see the wealth. Very simple. And I want you to look beyond the material wealth and look at the true cultural and spiritual wealth of these people, as a viewer. I was inspired by an American photographer, Edward Curtis. He photographed the Native Americans. He’s my hero. He did that for 30 years.

He ran around and said: “We have something special here, we have to cherish it, we have to celebrate it, we have to record it, we have to romanticise it, to acknowledge it.” He was told: “They’re irrelevant and you’re irrelevant because we’re moving on into the future, we’re developing. We don’t need this—all these skins and feathers and songs and campfires and tepees. What is valid is progress.” I would argue that what America has progressed into is the antithesis of humanity, with people so far removed from the source of who they should be. Unless more than four people are killed in a shooting, it doesn’t reach the international news because shootings are such an everyday occurrence. That is not where we should be as human beings.

So, referring back to what Edward Curtis did as a photographer, I’m sort of trying to do the same but in the whole world. Until we see the wealth in these places and these people, until we put them on a pedestal, until we regard them as successful and valuable and rich and developed and in touch and in balance, then we are as human beings, excuse my French, fucked. The longer you do this, the more experiences you have, the more special it is, the more valuable you see these places and these people to be. That’s the motivation to make them as beautiful as possible, to touch a romantic nerve in ourselves, to take a deep breath and to look further. 

Vaioa River, Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, 2016

You go to extraordinary lengths to capture these photographs, like the one of four Hakahau men perched high on a craggy rock...
Ua Pou is part of the Marquesas Islands. They’re a five-hour flight north of Tahiti. And then you have to go on a boat journey for a couple of days. So, it’s as remote as you can get within French Polynesia. The picture’s staged. They’re presenting themselves to me in their Sunday best. It’s not how they walk around the streets every day. It’s the equivalent of me coming to you and saying: I can secretly photograph you with an iPhone when you’re having a cigarette and you’ve got a hangover, or otherwise we’re going to make an appointment next week, I need all day, we’re going to bring a stylist, a make-up artist, and it’s probably best you go to the hairdresser on Saturday and do a little bit of clothes shopping. Both pictures are true, but they have a completely different message. The one secretly stolen from you is patronising, I have no respect for you, I’m just recording you as we can all look on occasions. The other, I’m putting you on a pedestal, I’m celebrating you. It’s also a truth—but it’s an aspirational truth.

I spent weeks there talking with them, taking their portraits, and the best part of a week walking around the whole island looking for the best landscape, studying the light, looking at what’s safe to get up to. Then eventually I found this one position with the peaks behind. I went on three specific evenings with them, waiting for the light to fall. And the last evening you got that light, the last golden glow coming over the horizon.

I travel with a lady who is writing the story and filming the whole process—so within the exhibition you will see making-of films of this situation.

Any other particularly memorable shoots?
We went to the Mundari. The Mundari live in South Sudan on the border of the Nile. It was a very precarious journey to undertake because for the last 40 years there’s been a civil war in Sudan. We supposedly went when there was a ceasefire. Ceasefire’s a bit dubious because war breaks out every other day. But it was thrilling because when we actually got to Mundari, as far as we understood, they’d never been filmed or photographed before. They’d never seen a white person—which is extreme today.

We spent about two and a half weeks with them. You ingratiate yourself, you live, you see. Every morning you join them naked in the river, you wash, you cover yourself in dust to protect yourself from the sun. You go through these rituals with them, until eventually there’s a sort of empathy. The last two days are spent taking the pictures. The pictures are only ever made very early in the morning or very late in the evening when the light is low, very indirect, very soft. The pictures are, in my opinion, iconic. They’re some of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever made.

Basha Miao Village, Congjiang, Qiandongnan, Guizhou China, 2016

Your works have attracted enormous success but also some controversy—why?
I feel that the button I may have pressed is that a lot of people are confronted by: “I thought we were the successful ones, I thought we were the rich ones, I thought we had it all and now I’m presented with Jimmy’s pictures, I’m beginning to become insecure, maybe we are not as advanced, maybe we’ve lost track.” Something’s gone a bit amiss and I think this is the reason why.

Every single picture I’ve made, I’ve spent days and weeks on my knees asking the people to look at me, look at me, look at me, and through that they end up looking through the camera to the viewer. It’s all about communication. They communicate an aesthetic and the pride and power of people who have no money, live in a tent, live off reindeer—and they’re more beautiful and touching than the majority of the synthetic drivel we see published. It’s a cultural challenge.

Do we crave some of that diversity in this increasingly homogenous globalised world?
The essence of individuality is authenticity and that’s the essence of happiness, if I dare say it—being utterly content with your own being in all its eccentricities and awkwardness. The journey that I went on is trying to answer those questions and find that peace.

My wife criticises me. She says, “You’re like Forest Gump, you’re always running away.” And I say, “No, no, I’m running to. I’m running to a light, I’m running to a connection.” I’m busy with that as a human being because of what I experienced as a kid, which was somewhat extreme, and now I come across these extraordinarily powerful and beautiful—and in many ways balanced—peoples. I realised that I have to present them in a very powerful, technically proficient, romantic, beautiful way for people to listen.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have any answers really. All I know is that as much as I etch myself into their soul, the pictures that I show you—the stories that I tell—have to etch something into your soul, to keep asking questions as to how important all this is.